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Music and Culture (sort of...)
Sam's Sonic Freakout

by Sam "Culture Dog" Hatch

Porcupine Tree – Arriving Somewhere… (Snapper music / 2 all-region DVDs) 

  As a big fan of music and a big fan of home theater, I hate to say that I’m usually somewhat disappointed by most of the music DVDs I purchase.  First off, a lot of the live concerts I pick up are sourced from British widescreen masters, yet the DVDs are rarely anamorphically enhanced for widescreen televisions.  The biggest problem, however, is usually related to the sound – and that’s what should be the brightest point of a music DVD, eh?  Too often a great show is encoded in stereo Dolby Digital without a lossless PCM (i.e. CD quality) track.  And then there’s the surround mixes.  I’ve got plenty of shows in DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround that should theoretically rock the house.  Unfortunately someone usually mixes them horribly and results in a tinny sounding audience annoying you from behind during the whole show.

  Not so with this release.  Porcupine Tree are no strangers to the surround sound audio world, as their albums Stupid Dream, In Absentia and Deadwing have all been released on the DVD-Audio format.  Luckily, PT frontman/auteur Steven Wilson was on hand to personally help mix this video of a Deadwing era concert from Chicago.  The end result is the best audio mix I’ve ever heard on a music video DVD. 

  Arriving Somewhere… also includes a bonus disc with Rockpalast performances and some promo clips and live show accompaniment films by Lasse Hoile.  The packaging is a rather elegant digipak slipcase with very Floydian artwork depicting band members superimposed over loudspeaker woofers.  (The Psychedelic One was also kind enough to lend me her copy of the signed limited edition, though the normal version without the nifty silver signatures is available for sale now)  The meat of the package is the first disc, including a hybrid setlist culled from two performances at Chicago’s Park West venue on October 11th and 12th, 2005. 

  The video opens up looking very much like a motion picture, with Hoile’s delightfully creepy video work setting the mood with numerous shots of abandoned tube stations and haunted faces.  Very David Fincher, if you will.  The video also earns kudos from yours truly for including an anamorphically enhanced transfer, so my widescreen frame was filled without the need to zoom in on the picture.  There has been some grumbling over the style of the film, for the video quality varies from solid color, retro-ized color with fake computerized scratches and grain, and grainy black and white.  I’m assuming it wasn’t shot on film, but quite a bit of effort was made in the postproduction computer realm to make it appear dated at times.  I can see how the effects could be distracting to some, but I thought it worked rather well and enhanced the overall mood.

  When you do get moments of unadulterated color video, it looks quite good, with decent black levels and high detail.  Some of the close-up shots of Wilson’s grayish Paul Reed Smith guitar look real enough to reach out and touch.  The concert itself is relatively laid back, and there isn’t much interaction with the crowd until the end (in which Wilson answers a request for ‘Free Bird’ by stating the band will perform the entire long version on the following night), but perhaps the nerves of having the video shooting curtailed the wit.  Wilson’s friends Opeth (whose lead singer Michael Akerfeldt is usually hilarious on stage) also came off very reserved on their superlative DVD release ‘Lamentations’. 

  Back to the sound, which as I promised before is indeed the best I’ve heard from a concert DVD.  The mix is expansive, yet every single instrument is easy to locate.  Wilson’s guitar primarily drives the right speaker (and at times it can sound like his Bad Cat amplifier is sitting in your viewing room) while tour-only participant John Wesley’s axe settles into the left speaker.  Colin Edwin’s bass comes from the left as well, but somewhere between the left front and left rear speakers.  And what a bass track it is!  With a good subwoofer it is a sublime reproduction (check out the beginning of Hatesong if you will), which can rock your bowels while still retaining the sound of every note without any muddiness.  In fact, for musicians studying the Tree-folk’s moves, this soundtrack would be perfect for picking out notes.  It’s amazing that something so dense sounding can also be so precise.  The keyboards hover in multiple locations, and Gavin Harrison’s drumming (which is a thing of wonder – watching him do his thing in person is very impressive indeed) occupies the front stage for toms and the like, while some snare work and cymbals come from behind and over the head of the listener.  Normally I’m not a big fan of that move, but it works remarkably well here.  Another good grade for Wilson and his crew!

  The setlist is what it is, and may or may not please all fans.  At roughly sixteen songs or so, some complain that it’s too short, while others gripe about the amount of non-LP songs present.  The only song I can recall wishing would be on the disc that wasn’t would be Gravity Eyelids, but whether or not you’re overtly familiar with the songs, they’re all easily enjoyed once their sound rolls over and around you.  Big hitters Blackest Eyes and The Sound of Muzak are present as expected, and most of the chosen songs are dynamically structured with loud parts complemented by acoustically driven, melody-laden midsections and choruses.  Songs that begin acoustically like Trains eventually build up into a blistering full-band barrage before settling back down again.  There’s also a pile of groove present, such as the funky opening of Halo, complete with Steven’s odd sound effects created by strumming his guitar strings on the headstock behind the nut.  If you’re worried about some of the magic being lost by being able to see how the sounds are created, then go ahead and close your eyes. 

  And if at times you find yourself naturally closing your eyes and soaking in the sound, you won’t be the only one.  Even at high volumes, the soundtrack is never fatiguing to the ears.  (Perhaps to your neighbor’s ears, but the heck with them!)  The surround tracks are extremely musical, and that is a refreshing delight when the general rule of thumb seems to be ‘put all the music up front, then crank up all the audience noise and dump it in the rears’.  I’m very interested in listening to the surround versions of the band’s studio work as well.

  On the technical side of things, the DVD scores points by including two audio options: CD quality stereo PCM sound and the aforementioned DTS 5.1 surround sound track.  In most cases I would opt for the former, but the surround track is so good I must admit I didn’t get a chance to check out the PCM track for review purposes.  The bitrate is extremely high, with the signal rarely dipping below 9.3 megabits per second (standard definition DVD can only go as high as roughly 10 megabits per second).  Audio was reviewed on Rotel, SVS and old school Advent equipment, while video was viewed via progressive scan DVD on a 100-inch screen generated by a Sony HD LCD projector.  The long and short of it is this – this DVD is very well done, so if you’re either a mild or major fan of Porcupine Tree you should consider it a must-have.

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Listen to Culture Dogs every Sunday night at 8 PM for an hour about films on the local scene and at your local video peddler, with Kevin O'Toole and Sam Hatch.

  Listen live at 91.3 FM WWUH, 89.9 WAPJ Torrington and wwuh.org.

Culture Dogs also podcasts thru culturedogs.org

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